A poetic fable that takes a subtle approach to an explosive subject, Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin" takes the viewer to bucolic Hutchinson, Kan., where one fateful sunny day two 8-year-olds are playing in a Little League game. Dark-haired, self-confident Neil (Chase Ellison), the star player, has become aware that he is different and that the immediate object of his attraction is the team's coach (Bill Sage). Sometime after that the coach takes Neil home and cunningly takes advantage of the situation. Separately, blond, nerdy Brian (George Webster), who lives in the nearby community of Little Run, realizes that "five hours have disappeared from my life. Five hours, gone without a trace."
Years pass and Brian, plagued by nightmares and terrified of the dark, comes to believe that aliens must have abducted him. An introverted, studious teenager, Brian (now played by Brady Corbet) is tormented by a comically obtuse and seriously possessive mother (Lisa Long), who has long since driven away her husband (Chris Mulkey). Neil (now played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has grown into a darkly handsome youth, raised lovingly by a single mom (Elisabeth Shue), who casually moves from one boyfriend to another.
Eventually, through a cable program, Brian hooks up with a bright, intense, weird farm girl (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who lives about 30 miles away and claims to have been abducted by aliens many times. While her theories about aliens may be dubious, she does help prod his memory to discover that for some reason he remembers a picture of the Little Leaguers and Neil in particular, without recalling his name. Some amateur sleuthing is in order.
Meanwhile, Neil has discovered he can make a lot of pocket money hustling in a Hutchinson park. As Brian comes closer to tracking him down, Neil in turn follows his lifelong soul mate Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) to New York. At this point these 18-year-olds -- Neil so foolishly sure of himself, Brian so desperately questing, both so crippled in their ability to interact with others -- have embarked upon courses of self-discovery that inevitably will intersect.
The most mature work by the idiosyncratic and gifted Araki, "Mysterious Skin," based on the book by Scott Heim, highlights the director's talent for inspiring the most demanding of portrayals from actors and for richly evoking the world his characters inhabit. The film has a mesmerizing floating quality, heightened by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie's deceptively serene score, and it has considerable offbeat, deadpan humor to offset its dark undertow.
All these elements ultimately coalesce to create an indirect but stunningly effective approach toward revealing how pedophilia can devastate and scar its victims. "Mysterious Skin" is candid without being graphic but leaves little to the imagination, and its language at times is blunt. But it's hard to imagine a more serious or persuasive indictment of the horrors inflicted on children by sexual abuse than "Mysterious Skin."
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Language, sexuality, disturbing images, adult themes; absolutely not for children
A Tartan Films and TLA Releasing presentation. Writer-director-editor Gregg Araki. Based on the book by Scott Heim. Producers Mary Jane Skalski, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Gregg Araki. Cinematographer Steve Gainer. Music Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie. Costumes Alix Hester. Production designer Devorah Herbert. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
In selected theaters.